Generative Search AI and Its Impact on Local SEO: An Agency’s Guide

As a digital agency, keeping up with how the business world is changing is important so you can support your clients with relevant strategies and tools. One area where change is happening at lightning speed is in generative search through artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on local search and SEO. 

Generative search AI differs from traditional search. Instead of typing a search query into Google and getting a list of blue links to websites where the user can get more information, as with traditional search, generative search AI uses deep learning algorithms to generate an answer to a query right there in the results page. Users can get results in the form of a paragraph or two of information, images, or even a conversation that allows them to ask follow-up questions and get more answers. 

Google has already rolled out its own generative search AI tool, called SGE (Search Generative Experience), along with an experimental, conversational AI chat tool called Bard. Bing is also testing out AI. 

Depending on how you view generative AI, all of this can feel very exciting or it can be a little daunting. Either way, it’s a new frontier in search that merits attention. Let’s take a closer look at traditional vs. generative search AI, the potential real-world implications for local search, and what you can do now to pave the way for the use of these tools in the future.

Different tools for different tasks

By now, you’ve probably heard about and maybe even played around with tools like ChatGPT. While it can be fun and interesting to try them out, ChatGPT and similar AI tools aren’t yet a be-all, end-all solution for consumers who want to find local businesses. 

That’s because AI is most useful right now for task-based searches. For example, a user could ask an AI tool how to code a website and the results will be pretty spot-on, with quick, step-by-step instructions. But ask that same AI tool for a local taco place, and instead of getting links to a few shops in your area, you might get a paragraph of information about the history of tacos — which is obviously not what you want.

Conversely, if you type “how do I code a website” into Google, you’ll get a list of websites that you then need to sift through, and the onus is on you to find the answer you need. But you’ll have no problem at all finding a local taco place as you normally would with a traditional Google search.

Here’s the takeaway: Generative search AI tools have a ways to go before they can reliably be used for local search queries, and as you may have experienced yourself, AI tools can come up with some pretty far-fetched and even off-base answers. But they’re good for returning information about tasks, answering “how to” questions, or jumpstarting a process. And the idea, of course, is that AI tools continually learn and get better, so that eventually they may be able to fully compete with — or even replace — traditional search. 

How local search might change with AI

One question raised by generative search AI is whether it will change consumer search behavior — and how. 

Consumers still expect to search for what they want locally and get quality results using traditional search methods — which is why Google Business Profiles and the Local Pack will remain invaluable to consumers and local businesses alike.

But local search is evolving and will continue to evolve, and generative AI has a role to play. 

Currently, when someone does a local search, the best results include some sort of ability to take immediate action, such as book an appointment or use a calculator if you have a mortgage business, for example. These actions are linked and searchable — which helps raise the profile of local businesses in search.

Now consider a scenario like this: Say you’re searching for a blue patio umbrella. An AI tool could generate results that show where you can get the umbrella locally — and also which stores have it in stock and where it’s on sale, and offer a coupon you can use to buy it. In theory, generative search AI could extend traditional search results so that not only can you find what you’re looking for locally, but with a click or two you can purchase it right there and even get it on sale. 

But it’s important to note that there’s also a learning curve with generative search AI — specifically, consumers have to learn the best way to use it to get the best results. This takes time and testing. And though experts are spending a lot of time these days analyzing SGE and other AI tools, general consumers haven’t had a chance yet to do the same. Then there’s the fact that some consumers may still prefer traditional search and expect to see a list of “best pizza” links in their search results, rather than having to read a paragraph of information about pizza. 

All of which is to say, how AI will be applied to local search is still very much speculative at this point. As the AI tools evolve, however, consumers could eventually figure them out and get more out of generative search AI than traditional search. It could be a huge opportunity for local businesses that want to take advantage of it.

And that’s where you come in as an agency.

How your agency can keep up

The first thing to understand is that AI keeps changing — and it changes so fast that trying to pin down a set of concrete rules or guidelines for approaching it isn’t going to be useful just yet.

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That being said, there are some things you can do now to help you at least form an understanding of generative search AI and its potential use cases for your local business clients, and how you can eventually incorporate it into your local search and SEO strategies:

1. Observe and play

Determine the type of questions that get asked the most on a client’s website that an AI tool could potentially answer better than a traditional search. Remember, right now that could be any type of “how to” or task-based question. That’s where the opportunity may lie to use an AI tool down the road. 

In the meantime, play around with SGE and other AI tools and see exactly how they can be used for everyday tasks. Look for a recipe, shop for something, or ask it to summarize a book and see what comes back. The results you get will help you deepen your understanding of how to leverage generative search AI in your clients’ day-to-day businesses. 

2. Keep doing what you’re doing

Broadly speaking, Google still values helpful content that conveys experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness — so don’t abandon these principles. Keep creating helpful content that’s written for consumers — i.e., humans — as this still carries great weight in traditional search and will for SGE results too. 

Also, make sure your clients’ Google Business Profiles are maintained and up-to-date — whether you’re doing this for them or advising them to do it themselves. GBPs should always be accurate and complete. 

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It’s also good to pay special attention to reviews. Generative search AI uses large language modeling (LLM) to comb through billions and trillions of words out there, and since reviews are composed of words and ideas, it’ll help you to know how reviews are being written. Since some generative search AI tools are more conversational, content that’s also more conversational — like reviews — could rank higher. Along with the words in reviews, photos and videos could increase in importance too.  

Finally, a note about local ranking factors: Most of the ranking factors today will continue to be ranking factors for a while, even with advances in generative search AI. There could be slight changes here and there, but the basics will remain the same. No matter what, Google needs accurate, complete information to understand what a business does and how to rank it.

3. Follow the experts

You don’t have to figure all of this out on your own. There are many experts online and in social media who have made it their main focus to follow the changes in AI and make sense of them. Learn enough to become conversant in generative AI with your clients, but leave the hard analysis to the people whose job it is. 

Check out what these experts are saying: 

  • Marie Haynes: @Marie_Haynes
  • Barry Schwartz: @rustybrick
  • Lily Ray: @lilyraynyc
  • Greg Sterling: @gsterling

Over time, as the AI evolution continues and some of these tools become more effective, it will become clearer how they can be used advantageously by your local business clients.

To learn how GatherUp can help your agency manage online reputations and reviews for your local business clients, schedule a demo.

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To learn more about generative search AI and its impact on local search, watch the webinar.


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